Prince: The last of a dying breed of storyteller songwriters

Prince: The last of a dying breed of storyteller songwriters

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Music artist Prince died today in his Paisley Park studio, the last of a now-dying breed of storyteller songwriters. His every lyric was rich in significance, conjuring up pictures, people, a journey, yet serving the artistic purpose of making you dance, sing, or cry.

Prince at 2008 Coachella Music Festival. (Image courtesy of Penner, Wikimedia Commons)

LOS ANGELES, April 21, 2016 — I was a late adopter of Prince and his music. Being part of the MTV generation, I was already saturated with his imagery, especially after both the movie and album “Purple Rain” were released. Prince’s persona, on-point fashion sense, swagger and talent exploded off the screen and transformed the cultural landscape. Admittedly, I was swept along with the rest of my peers.

As an artist and a writer, I was drawn to such fierce and unabashed expression. But as a devout Christian, I was warned by those supposedly more spiritual than I that his lyrics and music were of the devil.

While remaining a Christian, I wrestled myself from the warped fundamentalism of my teens sometime in young adulthood. That is when I started listening to Prince and watching his concerts and media appearances, and became a fan. He was a delight to watch, funny and self-deprecating, and his showmanship was unmatched by any other artist of his generation or future ones, bar none.

When Doves Cry: Prince Rogers Nelson dies at 57

Also unmatched was his vocal and instrumental prowess. Prince was versed in playing multiple instruments (piano, guitar, percussion, and more), and wrote and produced his own music from the time of his first album in 1978. The unforgettably haunting base and drum line introduction to “When Doves Cry” is stunning. But look past the catchy grooves and some of his naughtier songs, and you might find his lyrics are profound, edgy, and even riveting.

One of my favorite Prince songs is “Let’s Go Crazy”

“And if the elevator tries to bring you down
Go crazy punch a higher floor”

In an interview with Chris Rock for VH1, Prince clarified the meaning of this elevator metaphor: The elevator dropping is meant to represent the devil, while punching a higher floor means getting closer to God. As both a writer and a Christian, I can get on board with that, and this metaphor makes the song even more than just a pop anthem or a fun dance tune. It becomes infused with a direction.

“The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” is another song that has stayed on repeat:

“And if the stars ever fell one by one from the sky
I know Mars could not be too far behind
‘Cuz baby, this kind of beauty has got no reason to ever be shy
‘Cuz honey, this kind of beauty the kind that comes from inside”

“Sometimes It Snows In April” is particularly haunting, and, in light of Prince’s recent death, it takes on fresh meaning:

“Springtime was always my favorite time of year
A time for lovers holding hands in the rain
Now springtime only reminds me of Tracy’s tears
Always cry for love, never cry for pain

“He used to say so strong ‘Oh I’m not afraid to die
I’m afraid of the death that left me hypnotized’

“Now, staring at his picture I realize
No one could cry the way my Tracy cried

“Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad
Sometimes I wish that life was never ending
All good things, they say, never last”

Prince is among the last of a now-dying breed of storyteller songwriters. In his music, every lyric was rich in significance, conjuring up pictures, people, a journey, yet serving the artistic purpose of making you dance, sing, or cry. You may bop to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” But can it really be said to have any depth of meaning or whether we will be still bopping to it 40 years from now?


Prince remains the youngest producer on record, starting with his first album “For You” at 19. A prolific 37-year career followed, with Prince garnering Grammys, an Oscar, AMA, and Billboard awards. The apex of his career was the 2007 SuperBowl Halftime Show—one of the finest ever in my book.

Our generation had the privilege of watching the evolution and transformation of Prince’s unique artistic style and creativity across that time. Like a fine wine, he only improved with age.

While there are a score of major artists who are still performing, very few are making new music and affecting new generations of musicians. Prince embodied showmanship and commitment to his artistry. He was unapologetically true to himself, and was always a generous spirit toward fellow artists and contributors.

One very public period that made everyone take notice was his legal battle with Warner Bros. Music, when, for a period of time, he became known in media reports and reviews as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” Prince went so far as to change his name to a hyroglithic symbol, while legally wrangling with the record company over the intellectual property rights to his name. During that period as well, he often performed with the word “Slave” written across his face. Given the history of slaves being stripped of their African names for the sake of commerce, it was a bold and fitting statement.

Prince won that legal battle, regaining the use of his name. In recent years, he also regained his publishing rights as well. We throw around the term “brave” today in ridiculously loose ways that make the word almost devoid of meaning. But Prince, in waging that battle, was genuinely brave, and he fought it not only for himself, but for other artists.

Prince also had the distinction of rubbing shoulders with the celebrity culture while never allowing himself to be engulfed by it. He lived all his life in his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota and maintained a suburban life instead of the glamorous life that might have been expected of him. He reportedly eschewed alcohol and drugs, so you never heard of any Britney Spears-style meltdowns or DUI coverups. It’s a relief that his death, though still mysterious and unknown, will probably not be as a result of chronic drug use. How refreshing in an industry where rehab is considered street cred.

Prince was said to be shy and fiercely private, even before this invasive age of social media and YouTube, which was prescient on his part. Many newer artists are behind the curve in trying to control their images. Prince knew how to do this from the beginning, and was combative when it came to maintaining his unique control of both how and when he was viewed, and where his music was heard. It was apparent he learned the lessons of artists before him who squandered the investment of their talent and intellectual property for public notoriety and a paycheck. One hopes that other up-and-coming artist will take note and follow Prince’s example.

What is given short shrift by many is the platform he provided for some very talented women, whether it was by mentoring their musical talents (The Bangles, Sheila E, Wendy & Lisa) or by contributing to their body of work (Chaka Khan, Sheena Easton, Sinead O’Connor), often under pseudonyms. His philanthropy was as prolific as his music. But once again, it was as private as was much of his life.

In a 1999 Larry King Live interview, Prince said of his creativity: “The idea with art and inspiration is to try and let it grow and move forward.” His almost 40-year body of work is the embodiment of this. CNN and TMZ alleged that he was working on a memoir, which would have added to his artistry, growth and forward movement. But alas, he has journeyed beyond this life, and yet another creative voice has been stilled.

Rest in Peace Prince Rogers Nelson. There will never be another like you.

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